Researchers aim to turn plastic pollution into a biomaterial for a circular economy

Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Boxin Zhao and William Anderson

Professors Boxin Zhao and William Anderson

 In 2022 at the UN Environment Assembly representatives from 175 countries vowed to end plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is ubiquitous on earth affecting every habitat. The most glaring example is “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which is three times the size of France and is comprised of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of discarded plastic. 

Plastic pollution is a monumental problem and one a research team from the University of Waterloo has set their sights on solving. In an article that was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, a team led by Professor Boxin Zhao critically reviews different technologies for the degradation of micro plastics (MPs) and offers expert opinion on a potential solution. 

“It’s a bold move,” said Zhao a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Waterloo Endowed Chair in Nanotechnology, “as currently there’s no real approach to treat the problem of MPs in the environment.  The road to solving this emerging global issue will be filled with uncertainties. We wanted to take leadership to solve it.”

Currently, MPs are treated as waste. The team’s idea is to search for suitable microorganisms such as bacteria that would effectively ingest MPs and would excrete an eco-friendly biopolymer that could be used to create new materials such as plastic bags or plastic film for packaging. 

“We now know that microorganisms have the abilities we’re looking for,” commented Professor William Anderson, a team member from the Department of Chemical Engineering. “The challenge is putting those abilities together into suitable microorganisms that can perform the job quickly under suitable conditions.” 

The research team will use Material Flow Analysis to determine which MPs could be used in this process. Some MPs are toxic and so may not be suitable initially for this process. Treatments used in chemical engineering can alter these MPs so that they are made suitable for biodegradation.

“This chemical engineering approach to the problem uses nanomaterials as a catalyst. Using this combination, we hope that it will be possible to use MPs as feedstock to microorganisms,” said Zhao. “The hope is that we can treat MPs and convert them into a biomaterial for a circular economy.”

In 2021 the team, which also includes Professors Komal Habib and Steven Young from the School of the Environment and Professor Trevor Charles, a professor in the Department of Biology, received $250, 000 in funding from the New Frontiers Research Fund. Their work described in the journal represents the beginning of their journey to find a solution to the global issue of plastic pollution.

Read the full article.